– By Jhanvi Gudka
Last year, co-founder of Lastminute.com, Baroness Martha Lane-Fox, brought the media’s attention to the fact that the number of women working in tech is even lower than those in Parliament. Not only are there are fewer than 10% of women in leadership positions within the UK tech sector, but only 4% hold positions as software engineers. Lane-Fox’s comments were followed by some timely research, which found that companies led by women are amongst the fastest growing in the UK and collectively contributed more than £2 billion to the economy in 2015. This clearly exposes the long-term economic implications of a deep digital gender divide, but I believe it’s far more powerful to inspire action through example.
With this in mind and International Women’s Day around the corner, I’ve been speaking to five extraordinary ‘fempreneurs’ using technology to drive social change around the world and I wanted to use this opportunity to bring their inspiring stories under the spotlight.
According to the World Health Organisation, over 65 million people in the world need a wheelchair, yet 8 out of 10 people do not have one that meets their individual needs. It’s a problem Rachael Wallach knows all too well.
Rachael was just 18 when an injury left her with impaired mobility, which made attending university lectures a daily challenge. Receiving a grant from the Snowdon Trust, Rachael was fortunate enough to acquire a lightweight bespoke wheelchair. However, it was only years later while working for the Government Office for Disability Issues and travelling around South East Asia that Rachael realised her customised wheelchair was simply not accessible to most people around the world. Priced at £3,000, the cost of Rachael’s wheelchair was nearly six times the average salary in Laos.
Rachael was determined to change things but by her own admission, she had very little technical knowledge to tap into. However, inspired by an NGO in Jordan using 3D printing to create prosthetic hands for refugees, Rachael launched a series of hackathons in Europe to apply the same principle to wheelchairs. Working together with a nascent team of makers who provided the technical know-how, Rachael managed to facilitate the creation of a fully customisable, lightweight and low-cost wheelchair by 3D printing carbon fibre tubes at the angle of the user’s preferred sitting position. Disrupt Disability is still in its early stages but Rachael and her team are working to build an online library of free, open-source designs and instructions that can be easily and cheaply adapted to produce customised 3D-printed wheelchairs for everyone that needs one.
“You don’t need to be a tech expert to be a tech entrepreneur. You just need an idea and the ability to inspire; innovation is not an individual sport.”
Nathalie Richards had always wanted to be an entrepreneur but was constantly told to wait until she found something she was truly passionate about. That moment came during the 2011 London riots when Nathalie witnessed the desperation of the young people around her. The challenges that disadvantaged youth across the UK face are numerous, from knife crime and gang-related issues, to a lack of education and career opportunities. In fact, a staggering 60% of those that qualify for free school meals achieve less than five A to C grades at GCSE level and are repeatedly at the highest risk of facing social exclusion.
This rife educational inequality led Nathalie to launch Edukit – an online platform that connects pupils to the best national youth programmes, helping schools to unlock their pupils’ potential and increase attainment, particularly for those from less advantaged backgrounds.
Edukit has already secured partnerships with over 800 organisations, with some of the most high profile names including the Prince’s Trust, the Premier League and Jamie’s Fifteen Foundation. However, Nathalie believes this is just the tip of the iceberg. Through Edukit, Nathalie wants to bring underprivileged young people from the sidelines and provide them with tools and support to help them change their lives.
“Entrepreneurship is mentally and physically challenging (albeit very rewarding) so always surround yourself with great people – whether that’s co-founders, staff or advisers.”
THE LEVEL MARKET
Most international aid is tied up in the hands of oligarchs, creating archaic and inefficient processes for obtaining basic goods to help those in need. While there is no shortage of organisations trying to alleviate human suffering, the procurement process remains stunted. An overreliance on email, phone calls and Google searches continues to result in the painfully slow delivery of crucial aid. With 60 million people displaced in the world today and up to $100 billion spent each year responding to crises, Stephanie Cox spotted an opportunity to make a change.
Stephanie, a single mum of one and a cancer survivor, started her professional life as a journalist living in Eastern Europe. However, it was after obtaining her Master’s degree that she launched her career in international aid and development, gaining a unique insight into the needs, buying habits and aspirations of NGOs while working with various organisations in Asia and Africa. Stephanie’s light bulb moment came to her during the middle of the Ebola outbreak when her search for water filters was coming up short.
Marketplaces exist for everything from fashion to electronics, yet Stephanie quickly realised that no one had thought to create one for the procurement of the basic goods that 90% of the world’s population desperately needs. This led Stephanie to launch The Level Market, or as she put it to me – “a marketplace for humanity”. The Level Market allows buyers to compare products directly and receive custom pricing and delivery quotes using a single form, rather than multiple time-consuming processes. The platform has already received widespread recognition, but Stephanie’s aim is to “make buying a water filter for a child in Ethopia as easy as buying a book on Amazon.”
“Forget what other people think. Keep persevering and trying new things and develop enough self-confidence so that the only opinion that matters is your own (and your customers).”
DIGITAL CITIZEN FUND
When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the 1980s, Roya Mahboob was forced to flee her home until 2003. It was only upon her return that she worked hard to learn English and pursued her education in computer science before founding her IT software company, primarily for women.
With 85% of Afghan’s women illiterate and many girls discouraged from attending school, Roya’s story is a unique one. However, together with her co-founder Francesco Rulli, Roya established the Digital Citizen Fund to set up IT training centres across Afghanistan where female teachers help 12-18 year old girls learn the basics in digital and financial literacy, as well as coding and social media.
The Digital Citizen Fund has established 13 IT centres so far and has already provided 55,000 Afghani women and girls with Internet access. The next step is to train and empower another 5,000 more women over the next two years before expanding out into the notoriously conservative rural areas of Afghanistan. For Roya, it’s not just about employment – she wants to give women a digital voice to help them become independent, self-sufficient, and fulfill their dreams.
“Always start your business with patience and love. Never give up in the middle of the job, no matter how challenging things might seem.”
WALK WITH PATH
Lise Pape’s father diagnosed with Parkinson’s 10 years ago but following a period of heavy medication, he started developing ‘freezing’ – a sudden inability to move often occurring several times a day and leading to dangerous falls. One in three people aged 65 or over experience such falls every year in the UK, costing the NHS £2.3 billion a year. At the same time, Parkinson’s is expected to double by 2030.
Lise wanted to find a less invasive way to help her father and her idea came to her while studying for a Master’s in Innovation Design Engineering in London. Lise discovered that visual cues are able to trigger movement during a ‘freeze’ by focusing the person’s attention.
Having conducted various experiments of her own to find the ideal solution, Lise developed Path Finder – a shoe that emits a laser beam as a visual cue, prompting movement when a patient’s feet suddenly become glued to the floor. Lise has since established her company, Walk with Path, to continue developing products to help those living with Parkinson’s and her aim is to make these medical products commercially viable in the next two years.
“Explore your idea as early on as possible together with your end user to validate the concept. It’s also really important to build investor relationships right at the beginning so you have a support network around you ready to help you scale your business.”
These five incredible stories are just a handful of examples of how women are breaking down technical, cultural and social barriers and harnessing the power of technology to drive real social change at a grassroots level. With a passion and a desire to disrupt the status quo, anything is possible and that’s the thought I’d like to leave you with as we continue to celebrate and recognise women’s contribution to society this month.